Practice Profile

In the early 1970s as a University of Washington professor, Ronald E. Smith, PhD, asked a group of 10-year-old baseball players what they liked and didn’t like about their coaches. Smith still remembers the boy who said, “My coach isn’t tough enough or mean enough.”

When Smith asked the boy to explain, he replied, “Well, that’s what coaches are supposed to be like.”

Smith laughs about the exchange now, but he says the boy’s viewpoint was common at the time, cultivated by made-for-TV-movie portrayals of coaches, such as NFL legend Vince Lombardi, as gruff, tough and punitive screamers. But working with fellow researcher Frank L. Smoll, PhD, Smith has found that the most effective coaching style isn’t built on fear. Rather, what works best is a set of techniques that foster motivation and effort, develop athletic skills and reduce anxiety — what they call the Mastery Approach to Coaching.

“The best way to maximize performance is by creating an environment in which athletes are having fun, are highly motivated, they’re trying to improve, they’re giving maximum effort, and you have a good relationship with them, so they’re more likely to listen to what you tell them,” says Smith. “That’s the way you get to winning.”

Over the past eight years, with research support from the William T. Grant Foundation, Smith and Smoll conducted the empirically validated Youth Enrichment in Sports project and created a Web site for their program, as well as a 66-minute educational DVD for coaches and companion DVD for parents. Now Smith and Small are working to find corporate and foundation sponsors to send the training — free of charge — to youth programs nationwide.

As Smoll describes it, the coach training they’ve developed epitomizes psychology’s scientist-practitioner model. “That’s really what sets our work apart,” he says. “Certainly, since we started there’s been a lot done to develop training programs for coaches, but ours still remains to be the only one that’s been empirically tested and validated.”

And with half of all U.S. children ages 6 to 18 participating in athletics, the need for this type of program is great.

A need for coaching training

Smith and Smoll started their collaboration as young psychology researchers who shared a love of sports and coaching and an interest in studying human performance enhancement. Smith paid for his undergraduate education at Marquette University in Milwaukee by running a social center and coaching youth teams. Smoll was a baseball and basketball star at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis.

When Smith and Smoll first met at the University of Washington in 1971 and started their research, few scientists had studied how to coach children effectively. In fact, coaches mostly relied on the techniques they’d picked up from their own coaches, with no formal training.

The two secured funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to study coaching styles. In the first phase of their research, they explored the behaviors of coaches and developed the Coaching Behavior Assessment System, a 12-category behavior coding system used to record what coaches do and say during games and practices. In a follow-up study published in Developmental Psychology in 1990 (Vol. 26, No. 6), they found an interesting connection between how baseball coaches behaved and how children felt about playing on their teams: Children with low self-esteem responded positively to highly supportive coaches who were strong on instructional skills and didn’t like coaches who were less supportive of the athletes.

Using those results and additional research, Smith and Smoll developed Coach Effectiveness Training, a two-hour program that teaches coaches how to monitor their behaviors, offer encouragement and technical instruction, and avoid yelling and expressing frustration. The coaches complete a self-monitoring form after each practice and game that enables them to estimate the percentage of instances they provided technical instruction when a player made a mistake, offered encouragement, and praised good performance and effort.

The training also teaches coaches a technique Smith calls the “the positive sandwich”: When a player makes a mistake during a game, instead of getting angry or expressing frustration, the coach first finds something to commend about the play, follows with a specific, technical instruction about how to correct the mistake, and ends with a note of encouragement.

When teaching coaches, Smith and Smoll make clear that they understand winning is an important objective, but they always stress that promoting fun, reducing anxiety and improving performance gives a team its best chance for success (Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 1).

Spreading the word

In a study of the intervention published in 1993 in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 78, No. 4), Smith and Smoll found that when coaches used the sandwich technique, their young athletes liked their coaches more and got along better with their teammates. In addition, by season’s end, children who had scored low in self-esteem showed gains in this area.

The intervention also kept more children playing ball. On average, about 35 percent of young athletes drop out of sports by the next season, but among children playing on teams with the trained coaches, only 5 percent dropped out of sports the following year, according to results published in 1992 in The Sport Psychologist (Vol. 6, No. 2).

In a 2007 study, Smith and Smoll found that the intervention works for female athletes, as well. Anxiety decreased for girls playing basketball for trained coaches, but increased in girls playing for coaches not trained in the mastery approach.

Over the years, Smoll has worked closely with youth athletic programs in the Seattle area, and estimates that he’s delivered about 500 workshops with 25,000 coaches in attendance in the past 30 years.

Frank Cammarano, who serves as the youth athletics program coordinator for Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation, first got to know Smoll back in 1989, when he helped run the Catholic Youth Organization’s sport programs in the Seattle area.

There’s a noticeable difference between coaches trained in the mastery approach and coaches who didn’t get the training, Cammarano says.

“What we found was the coaches had a better understanding of how to handle the kids, so there were [fewer] arguments and more teaching,” he says.

Smith, who directs clinical training at Washington, hasn’t confined his work as a scientist/practitioner to youth sports. From 1985 to 1997, he worked as a consultant and psychological skills instructor with the Houston Astros baseball organization, teaching the mastery approach to coaches and managers. Former Astros pitching coach Jim Hickey credits “Dr. Ron” with teaching him relaxation techniques that he passes on to pitchers.

During Hickey’s years as the Astros’ pitching coach, the team advanced to the National League Championship Series in 2004 and reached the World Series in 2005. Hickey joined the Tampa Bay Rays in November 2007, and the team played in the World Series in 2008.

“If I didn’t run into him as early as I did in my career, I would have spent 10 years or so trying to find some of the things we talked about,” Hickey says.